How to make your reference checks effective

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Zinc Team
December 12, 2019
Updated on:

Reference checks are an important opportunity to ensure you are hiring the right people. Whether you are new to checking references or if you have conducted hundreds, you want to ensure you are conducting your online reference check in the right way. Make sure you are getting the most out of references by following these steps.

Speak with the right person

The first thing you need to do when checking a candidate’s references is to make sure you’re contacting someone who can tell you about the candidate in a professional capacity. Often this person is their manager, but you could also consider asking to contact other people who know the candidate’s work such as a co-worker or project leader. This can help give you a better idea of the candidate’s work style.

Often the job of providing professional references is given to HR, but this may not be the most useful reference if the person you contact did not work directly with the candidate. Ask for direct contact details of the referees such as their work email or phone number so you have a better chance of getting hold of the right person. That's not to say there aren't risks associated with collecting references over email and phone.

If you are using an automated background and reference checking tool you can write a personalised note asking for a specific person by name when requesting the reference.

Prepare your questions

Before you collect the candidate’s references, you should prepare some questions. When deciding what to ask, think about the priorities of the role you are recruiting for, the skills and experience your ideal candidate needs and tailor your questions to these factors.

You could also think about the culture of the business and the values that the ideal candidate should hold to be able to work well with their future colleagues. Think about the work environment, the management style of the team leaders and the attitudes of the team.  

Once you have decided what you need to find out from your reference checks, tailor your questions around these topics. We've put together the best questions for a reference check.

Don’t lead or influence the referee’s response

When collecting a reference you’ll want to get the referee’s honest opinion about the candidate. Make sure you ask open questions that require more than a yes or no answer and that doesn't suggest the answer you’re hoping to get. People naturally want to please, so you could get a more biased answer if you use leading questions.

Instead of “Did she have any issues with self-motivation when working remotely?”

Ask: “Tell me about her approach to remote or independent work.”

Asking the first question raises the prospect that there could be an issue with the candidate’s self-motivation and could be answered with a simple yes or no. This would not get you the rich insights that would help you make a hiring decision. The second question is more open. Starting with ‘tell me about...’ elicits a narrative from the referee without implying that there may be a problem. This question format could get you a more balanced response that will help your hiring and onboarding decisions.  

There will always be a layer of bias with references as you're effectively asking someone's opinion about the candidate and this can come with its own prejudices. The question format can only do so much to remove bias, so be aware of this when interpreting the reference.

Read between the lines

When reading the reference, you should pay just as much attention to what is left out as to what is actually said. Is there anything they are avoiding answering or did they change the subject and answer a different question to the one you asked? Make notes and see if you can find any glaring omissions.

Try not to take the reference at face value. Take time to reflect on the reference after you have collected it. Consider whether the reference is positive, negative, or neutral overall? Was there a particular thing that the referee focused on? What stands out to you?

When giving a reference, people are often cautious about giving a bad reference in case of legal action, so a reference that may seem positive at first glance may not be so glowing on reflection. If the referee said they were a good employee, it may be worth re-reading to see if you can find anything that hints as to why they weren’t more enthusiastic about the candidate’s work.

Having said that, don't read too much into the tone of voice. The referee could be having a bad day or you could have caught them at a bad time. Focus on the information they give you to complete the picture of your candidate.

Try to get a well-rounded view

During your interview with the candidate, you should have gained a good idea of their skills and experience. Your online reference checks can, of course, verify that the candidate actually has the skills they claim to, but there are other things you can take this opportunity to check.

If the role requires remote work, you may want to ask about how good the candidate is at self-motivating or working independently. If building your company culture is at the forefront of your hiring priorities, asking about the candidate’s values can help you work out whether they would be a good addition to your team.

Automate your reference checks

If all of the above sounds like a lot of effort, that’s because it is if you collect your references manually. Over the phone it can take a while to get through to the right person, possibly involving scheduling a later time when the referee can talk. Over email, it can take days, even weeks of chasing. This is where automated online reference checking services like Zinc can help.

Zinc’s automated referencing toolkit sends out all the notifications and chasers to your candidates and their referees via email and text.

The reference is collected via a dynamic web form which is designed to be simple and quick for candidates and referees to use. The default options use a combination of open-ended and multiple-choice questions, designed to.

This means you can get high-quality candidate insights,  and practice your due diligence effortlessly across all positions, not just senior roles.

Discover a better way for reliable automated background checks